As a giant sucker for teen flicks and coming-of-age stories, I was psyched when Breakup Girl was invited to a screening of the forthcoming film Toe to Toe — sort of Bring It On, with lacrosse — plus a panel discussion moderated by Melissa Silverstein (Women & Hollywood) featuring Courtney Martin (contributor to The Shriver Report and senior correspondent for The American Prospect), Rachel Simmons (NYT bestselling author of Curse of the Good Girl and Odd Girl Out) and Emily Abt, writer/director of Toe to Toe.
Drawing from the diverse, but racially and socio-economically divided landscape of Washington, D.C., Toe to Toe opens with a very powerful female voice. We hear Tosha chanting the mantra “Black Bitch” as she prepares to face her opponents for a lacrosse tryout. In that moment, we get a very raw glimpse of Tosha — warrior, high achiever, focused, dedicated and hard at work; for her, not a lot comes easy. Tosha tries to score a goal, only to come up short. As we see Tosha ‘s frustration, Jesse appears. Fun-loving, with a certain arrogance of grace and skill that, along with the comforts of privilege, come naturally, Jesse says: “Watch me!”– and deftly winds her way to the goal and scores. On the exterior, their competitiveness on the lacrosse field, as well as the obvious markers of race and class, would seem to divide them, but something surprising happens as Tosha accepts Jesse’s help with her lacrosse game. Curiosity wins out as each girl sneaks a peek into the other’s world.
Obviously, their friendship is not uncomplicated. Preceded by their reputations, they take up different roles in the high school hierarchy. With their personal struggles, pressure from other students, and an interest in the same boy, the two find themselves “toe to toe” on more than just the lacrosse field. By the time Tosha’s locker is tagged with her mantra “Black Bitch,” their friendship has unraveled. The school goes into an uproar; the administration takes action. I was struck by this moment because throughout the film, we see Jesse at her locker with the word “Slutster” written across it. While never acknowleged, the label is there. Somehow, in a school quick to take up arms over race, it is still acceptable by both male and female students to demean a young woman or girl by labeling her a slut.
While similar in theme to more comedic fare such as Mean Girls, Toe to Toe stands out because the struggle for Tosha and Jesse comes from working within, yet pushing the boundaries and limits of the roles they have been given. They are unapologetic about who they are and own their actions, both “good” and “bad.”
Additionally, Abt broaches very women-centric topics such as the “virgin/whore” dichotomy, the normality of sports in women’s lives, girls’ aggression, working mothers and absent fathers, displacement of care with mothers leaving their own children to care for children of more affluent households, negotiating multiple identities, lesbians, rainbow parties, cliques, appropriating language, issues of privacy and technology, the power of perception and — there’s more! — the power of female sexuality. The film as a whole is an unapologetic portrayal of girls on the verge of becoming women and the dynamics of their worlds.
The panel, likewise, spoke to these topics and asked some important questions. How do we get people, namely boys and men to watch films with complex female characters? Why is it important to have male viewers?
We already know women have some serious box office mojo. The second installation of Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight series broke into the number 3 spot for all time box office opening weekends. An Education and Precious are in contention for Best Picture. A year or two ago Juno walked away with an Oscar for Best Screenplay. Does anyone even need to mention the phenomenon of Sex and the City?
Women want images that represent their multiple identities. No, I’m not talking multiple identities in the crazy sense. Just like men, we aren ‘t all the same. Maybe we just want a little reciprocity. So, all you women AND men out there, support independent film-making. Support women. See Toe to Toe, even if you never quite saw the point of lacrosse. (You will now.) Then, come and tell us what you think.